That said, this movie made me think fondly of Quicksilver, because at least during Quicksilver I laughed.
Premium Rush attempts to deliver (oh ho!) a heart-pounding action movie comedy with a love story in it that is also about New York and Bike Messenger Subculture and immigration problems and corrupt cops and sexy action comedy Michael Shannon.
This is what you actually get.
1. The germ of a good movie. It's all frittered away, don't worry, but the basic premise has a lot of potential – a glimpse into the subculture as bike messenger in a chase down Manhattan, having to navigate traffic and crowds while avoiding a corrupt cop, with no one to trust but fellow messengers, as the clock to delivery ticks down. Sounds like a good movie, right? Sounds like a chance to avoid some of the mistakes Quicksilver made?
Not a chance. We're going to make all those mistakes right over again!
2. First, let's get it out of the way: yes, New York has a strained relationship with its cyclists, and dislikes bike messengers in particular. Is some of this unearned? Possibly. Does this movie present us with a group of people who assure us in dialogue and voiceover that they don't care about the money, they just care about riding hard, "runnin' reds and killin' peds"? You bet! Do they continue to reinforce that they don't give a shit about traffic laws or pedestrians or anything throughout the film? Certainly. Are they charming rogues or secret anti-bike-messenger propaganda? Could have fooled me!
3. Is our hero, Wilee (yes like the coyote, don't look at me), a kid just trying to do his best in a world where jobs are hard to come by and bike messengers barely scrape a living together despite their dangerous, if exciting, work? Hell no! Joseph Gordon Levitt went to LAW SCHOOL, you guys. He didn't take the bar exam because he's too cool for that shit. He messengers because he loves the wind in his eyes! He rides a fixed-gear bike with no brakes, because braking is for Tools of the Man!
His nemesis has a multiple-gear bike and a fancy helmet and a Bluetooth headset, and you'd think this sets up a conflict between the hotshot who thinks rules don't apply, and a guy who's great at what he does and follows rules. You'd be wrong, since they both disobey all traffic laws all the time ever, and Manny's only beef with Wilee is that he'd like to date Wilee's girlfriend Vanessa, and race Wilee through Central Park. Those are his only motivations. It's that kind of movie.
All of their relationships are as straightforward as they sound. This is the sort of movie where you walk up to the person that you're mad at, and when they ask, "You haven't returned my phone calls, are you mad at me?" you say, "I'm very mad at you, you missed my graduation," and yet nothing deepens or moves forward, that's just the conversation you had. (And yet later, when Wilee calls Manny to let him know he's carrying the Important Envelope and Wilee needs it back – he ditched it before – Manny doesn't ask why, and Wilee never mentions there's a bad cop after the envelope, and instead Manny just demands that Wilee race him through Central Park and hangs up. Fuck dialogue, it's ACTION SEQUENCE TIME.)
4. Speaking of, the action sequences are actually sort of dull? There's some sense of the constant low-level panic you get if you try to move through New York ever – on foot, on a bike, in a car – especially as the action routinely breaks into bullettime so that Wilee can determine routes through intersections, two-thirds of which always end in crashes with critical injuries, and the safe one of which often involves jumping the sidewalk and narrowly avoiding crashing into pedestrians (rad subculture motto!). But despite Joseph Gordon Levitt's usual physical ease, there's no sense of exhilaration, or even of danger, which is weird in a movie that's billed as a high-speed chase. (We'll get there.)
5. The person Wilee's going through all these stunts for: Nima, a Chinese immigrant using an under-the-table broker to get her son out of China. This is a high-stakes subplot! She can't go to the cops, and because Vanessa her bike-messenger roommate is a nosey parker dummy who blabs to a corrupt cop the moment he feeds her a line, everything is at risk! She can't deliver the ticket herself! It's all the way from Columbia to Chinatown, and they only have until 7pm, but it's already 5:30! Definitely the best thing to do is to have a bike messenger ride through rush-hour traffic to deliver it, and definitely that person should be Wilee, because the plot told you to.
6. The corrupt cop? Is Michael Shannon, delivering the sort of performance that comes from promising a strong actor a nice New York vacation, getting him extremely drunk, then yelling, "Think Dennis Hopper or Large Marge or something! Crazy eyes! ACTION." He's a cop with a gambling problem! Also he hates the word "douchebag." Also he beats a guy to death and when he gets the news over the phone, he just blinks, tries not to look into the camera, and leaves the men's room. It's not so much a performance as it is a request for another take that nobody noticed and they left in.
It's not even that he's two-dimensional; there wouldn't be the same truly bizarre edge to a two-dimensional character. This is halfhearted gonzo, and it's as odd as it sounds.
7. Their chase plays out in "real time," for values of "real time" that recall the magical geography of Quicksilver (even if you assume that was supposed to be San Francisco troughout, which I will question forever and nothing 1986 says can stop me). This movie is basically brought to you by Google Maps, as it shows you lingering real-time route diagrams, thumbtacks important locations, and zooms repeatedly over a model of New York City that I hope was meant to be stylized.
At 5:33, the pickup is made. Time and location is marked after that, as Wilee aborts delivery once, chases Manny to get it again, escapes police clutches, etc. It's all already nonsense, and the movie conveniently leaves out things such as the fact that their route takes them through Times Square and Penn Station at rush hour. (It's okay! When you're a bike messenger it takes zero seconds!) About the two-thirds mark (just past 6:30, according to the clock), Wilee crashes into a car in Chelsea, is picked up by an ambulance, interrogated by corrupt cop in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, somehow convinces the cop to take him to his bike, goes to an impound lot that looks as though it's somewhere in Chelsea, gets his bike, goes through an action escape sequence, bikes with three cracked ribs from the impound lot to Chinatown, and delivers his cargo at 6:59.
This is about the point in the movie where they stop telling you what time it is, or where anything is. Can't imagine why.
8. The other tactic to prevent you from thinking about the timing is to use flashbacks and looparounds. They're usually about twice as long as they need to be, and while sometimes informative, are rarely interesting. In the "best" one, we see Wilee and Vanessa first getting together at a messenger party in a tiny dive bar (they are not an interesting couple, thank goodness we watch them so long), at which Sleigh Bells gives a concert, and then raffles off the Bike Messenger of the Year Award. (To book Sleigh Bells for your next party or corporate event, call the number at the end of the film!)
9. For a subculture movie, there is little time spent in the actual subculture. Aasif Mandvi does a good job as the dispatch manager (delivering gems like, "When does Raj get to climb Mount Vanessa?"), but he's there to hinge a few flashbacks and exposit, and that's it. Glimpses of other bike messengers are just reminders that maybe there are some people in this subculture less tedious than Wilee, Vanessa, and Manny. However, the movie decides ten minutes from the end that the only way Wilee will deliver his message is if the bike messengers pull together to form a flash mob to slap the cop. So, they do.
(Literally, this is what happens. It is out of nowhere, and you are talking to someone who still gets excited when a bunch of extras go after the Gibson in Hackers, so this should not have been a hard sell. Also, we had spent a lot more time in "hacker subculture" by then. For this to be a direct equivalent, Dade would have spent 90% of the movie Rollerblading furiously away from Fisher Stevens as they shout back and forth about their feelings. Anyway.)
As Wilee delivers the ticket and Nima's son gets to board the boat to freedom, Michael Shannon gets smacked by circling bike messengers until they suddenly vanish, so the Chinese gamblers and the "Brighton Beach guys" to whom he owes money can appear at different sides of the alley, and he can be shot in the head by an unrelated Chinese mafia assassin, and stumble around dying of a headshot as the movies leaves a moment for chuckles and then cuts to a wild celebration of bike messengers who have found that, despite their differences (I guess?), nothing brings them together like a nice game of slapcop, and also no one will be in trouble when the cops find one of their own shot dead in Chinatown with a bunch of contusions on him from being messengered, so yay! Also Wilee's sorry he didn't go to Vanessa's graduation. Also Manny finally got to lose a race to Wilee and so he doesn't have any problem with him any more because that's how societal construction of masculinity works. Also I guess it's nice Nima has her son back but nobody asks her about it, so maybe it's not a big deal.
Also, sometime around 6:20pm, Nima heard the news that the ticket had been rerouted, and hops on the subway at Columbia. She gets to the meeting point in Chinatown at 6:59pm. If you think I didn't notice, movie, you are wrong. You are wrong as hell.
10. If you're going to watch one movie this year where a twerp is our point of entry into the bike-messenger subculture, just see Quicksilver.